Bottoms up! Whether you prefer Don Julio, Clase Azul, or Patron, it is time to celebrate National Tequila Day on July 24! And what better way than to understand how the spirit is made. With deep ties to Mexican culture, the clear or golden liquor has both a storied history and a highly specific production process.
Dating back to the Aztecs, the use of blue agave in the creation of spirits is unique to Mexican land. In fact, tequila did not find an American audience until prohibition when European spirits were hard to come by and bootleggers began bringing bottles over the border.
How is tequila made? Step by step.
Crafted from the Weber Azul agave plant, tequila, to bear that name can only be made in one of five approved Mexican states: Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and Jalisco.
The process starts with farmers or ‘jimadores’ who grow the Agave plants and wait until they are ripe for harvest: between 7 and 14 years. At the point of harvest the leaves are cut back with special knife called a ‘coa’ and the “piña” or heart of the agave plant is extracted.
The piñas are then steam baked in an oven for two to three days in order to bring forth the fermentable sugars that will eventually make the liquid alcoholic. Once cooled the piña is crushed or shredded to create a liquid. That liquid is then fermented with yeast and water in either wooden barrels or steel vats. This causes any sugars in the liquid to transform to alcohol.
Once the alcohol by volume level reaches a number between four and nine percent, the liquid can be distilled. The distillation is to purify the tequila and concentrate the alcohol. Regulation sets the minimum at two rounds of distillation, which is common practice, and 35% alcohol by volume.
Once this threshold is reached, the tequila is ready to be either bottled as clear, silver tequila, blended, or aged.
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What is the main ingredient for tequila?
The Weber Azul agave plant, or ‘agave tequilana’ in spanish. It is a large succulent with pointy leaves that stick straight upwards.
Why can tequila only be made in Mexico?
To be considered an authentic “tequila” the spirit has to be made in the five designated regions of Mexico, otherwise it is a mere “agave spirit.” These are the areas where the Weber blue agave grows. The five regions were identified by the Mexican government and the Consejo Regulador del Tequila.
The Agave Landscape and Ancient Industrial Facilities of Tequila, nestled between the foothills of the Tequila volcano in Jalisco was designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2006.
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What are the different types of tequila?
The three main categories are:
Blanco tequila is not typically aged — it is meant to express a more unadulterated form of the agave flavors and is sometimes let to stand in a steel tank.
Reposado tequila is aged in oak barrels and is let sit for anywhere between two months and a year.
Añejo tequila is the final stop on the scale (save for a smaller category called “extra añejo”), and is aged for one to three years.
There is one more classification: Joven tequila, which mixes blanco with a small bit of aged tequila.
Tequila 101: Fast facts about the spirit
Is tequila made from pineapples?
No. This might be a popular misconception because the word for the agave heart: “piña” also means pineapple in Spanish, and it looks a bit like a pineapple too.
Is tequila a healthy alcohol?
It’s complicated. Like any alcohol, excessive amounts of tequila can have adverse health effects. However, some studies have shown that a component of tequila does help lower levels of bad cholesterol by breaking down fat. It can also be a digestive aid.